quia nominor leo

In his famed novel notre dame de paris, victor hugo uses the phrase “quia nominor leo.” According to his own endnote, the phrase is an allusion to the passage by Phedre where the lion attributes itself the first part in virtue of its authority. The phrase became a proverb to signify the attribution of certain preferences by the dominant class.

[an explanation of the phrase and its context can be found here, in French]

Hugo uses the phrase in his relevant chapter on the death of architecture by the book, Ceci tuera cela,” where he reverses the popular usage to describe the end of Romanesque architecture, a symbol of the dominance of the church, and the start of the Gothic as a style of the people:

Authority wavers, unity is divided. Feudalism demands to share with theocracy, while awaiting the inevitable arrival of the people, who will assume the part of the lion: Quia nominor leo. Seignory pierces through sacerdotalism; the commonality, through seignory. The face of Europe is changed. Well! the face of architecture is changed also. (Hugo 1832)

Through the Gothic cathedrals, architecture becomes “the chief register of humanity”—according to Hugo, the style is populist, but it makes architecture dominate over all other media. Architecture becomes tyrannical, it subsumes all the other arts, it is unmovable—only revolution can destroy the constructed word. With the advent of the Gutenberg press, architecture starts withering away—the arts are liberated and thrive, but the building is destroyed. Hugo is ambivalent about the destiny of architecture—should it thrive again, it “will no longer be the social art, the collective art, the dominating art.” For Hugo, populism and tyranny tend to alternate cyclically, and his argument for the dominance of the book—ending the tyranny architecture had assumed—is also a meditation on populism, and on the necessity for the people to assume the part of the lion.

The same phrase appears in a different context in Roland Barthes’s “Myth Today” in his seminal book Mythologies (1957), to explain the workings of mythical speech. Barthes transforms himself into a pupil in a french lycée, who opens his Latin grammar and reads a sentence “from Aesop or Phaedrus: quia ego nominor leo.” Barthes uses the example to distinguish between the phrase’s linguistic meaning (because my name is lion), and its mythical meaning (grammatical example).  

If one encloses quia ego nominor leo in a purely linguistic system, the clause finds again there a fullness, a richness, a history: I am an animal, a lion, I live in a certain country, I have just been hunting, they would have me share my prey with a heifer, a cow, and a goat; but being stronger, I award myself all the shares for various reasons, the last of which is quite simply that my name is lion. But as the form of the myth, the clause hardly retains anything of this long story. (Barthes 1957)

I’m imagining young Victor and young Roland, both as students in their French lycées, reading the phrase in their Latin grammar books. The story of the lion and its power is impressive, the lion takes the bigger part because it feels entitled to it. It lingers in their young, impressive minds. Let’s take a random cut of their lives at 10 years old:

In 1812, France was under the reign of Napoléon, and Hugo’s mother’s supposed lover was executed for being a royalist. His father, loyal to the emperor, had engaged the family in extensive travel a few years before, but by this date the family would be established back in Paris. Young Victor, at 10 years old, would have already seen Rome, Naples, and the Mediterranean. Barthes, having lost his naval officer father when he was one, moved through Cherbourg, Urt, and Bayonne, before settling in Paris at 11 years of age. In 1825 he was ten, and probably in Bayonne, a bigger city than the previous rural towns, but still nothing like Paris—where he would soon show great promise while at the same time battling tuberculosis. His constant illness would cost him jobs teaching at bigger universities, and he would remain close to his rural roots and averse to large institutions.

For Hugo, the people took on the part of the lion. With a father loyal to the emperor and a royalist mother, Hugo became a republican and went through exile because of it. The previous lions, the emperor and the church, were to be replaced by a government of the people. For Barthes, it was Paris, the big institutions, that held power in his life and played the role of lions. We might speculate that the phrase has an added significance for Barthes—he probably read Hugo. It was no longer only Greek fable, but also part of French 19th-century romantic literature, suggesting the possibility of a de-mythologizing reading of Barthes himself.

Barthes is interested in the weakening of the linguistic meaning of the phrase as it is appropriated by mythical language. The lion and its jungle do not matter for the French pupil, they are weakened to become a grammatical example. Barthes’s structuralist formula is well known, but what interests me is that, in a certain way, it parallels Hugo’s argument from the previous century—the dominant system is weakened, looses all its power: architecture and the lion. A new system takes over—the book kills architecture, language is mythified, the fable of the lion is left as a grammatical example.

ps. It is interesting to note that Barthes seems to have changed the phrase by adding the word ‘ego’—this would be supported by the google ngram viewer here.

pps. By the way, my name is also lion—if you know my last name and some Spanish. But this is actually a coincidence, since León is only how my Chinese grandparent’s last name sounded to Spanish speakers.

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